Laura Flory '08'

Home gardening practices help preserve the Chesapeake Bay

Virginia residents can improve water quality and protect the Chesapeake Bay, one new behavior at a time

When Laurie Fox takes visitors through the demonstration gardens at the Virginia Tech Hampton Roads Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Virginia Beach, she breaks the rule of “look but don’t touch” that defines other well-maintained grounds. She brushes a hand on rain chains made of iron flower bulbs and fish and describes how they do a better job of slowing runoff from a roof. She taps on rain barrels that collect stormwater for use in watering plants, filling bird baths, or washing cars. She shows visitors the 12-year-old rain garden, or a “puddle with plants that act as a powerful biofilter,” as Fox will describe the landscaped area.

Among the center’s 28 demonstration gardens, all there to show the public the range of plants and practices they can try in their own yards, four are dedicated to landscaping for water quality and conservation. In rain chains, rain barrels, and rain gardens, Fox sees easy, affordable steps toward a lifestyle that limits impact on the water running through Virginia and into the nearby Chesapeake Bay. And she finds that these practices are more feasible to people when they can look at examples, ask questions, and see solutions to problems that affect their lives.

“Start with just one new practice,” she said. “There are a million-and-one things people can do. The bottom line is: everybody can do something, and it all adds up.”

That mentality guides Fox’s broad set of research and Extension roles at the Hampton Roads AREC. There, she uses her expertise in sustainable landscape design and phytoremediation – the use of plants to clean polluted water – to translate the latest research into actionable information for the public, city officials, engineers, environmental and gardening organizations, plant producers, and more. Much of what she shares focuses on human impact on water.

Ron Burleson '81

Rain chains are beautiful and functional tools to slow runoff from roofs.

“Everything you do in your landscape affects water quality, in some way, shape, or form,” said Fox. “Whether you live in an urban or suburban area, on the water or not, everything is connected. All activities have an impact.”

In Virginia Cooperative Extension publications like “What is a Watershed?” Fox shows people how their actions – like fertilizer use on their lawns or the way their roof contributes to runoff – directly affect Virginia waters and the larger Chesapeake Bay watershed. Using different educational outlets, she highlights ways people can use their landscapes to improve water quality, conserve water quantity, and help reduce flooding.

Fox has co-written a six-part series on stormwater management solutions for homeowners to explain the practices of rooftop redirection, rain barrels, permeable pavement, grass swales, rain gardens, and buffers. Homeowners can download the publications, visit the demonstration gardens at the AREC to observe those practices in place, and attend classes, workshops, and demonstrations conducted by Extension Master Gardeners all over the state to learn more.

“It’s about trying to find the best way to connect with people,” said Fox. “What we do research-wise has to go through some translation to make it interesting and usable to the public. I can talk about bioretention and not make the connection, but if I talk to you about rain gardens, that sounds more interesting. If I say that a rain garden is a puddle with plants used to clean up pollution in stormwater, that’s more effective.”

Laurie Fox uses creativity, ingenuity, and best practices to educate Virginia residents about water quality and conservation.

Fox’s Extension publications and other educational efforts fold in research from Virginia Tech. She frequently collaborates with researchers like David Sample, an Extension specialist and assistant professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering.

The two were part of a team of Virginia Tech researchers that studied how well floating treatment wetlands can work to reduce nutrients in runoff from commercial nurseries. The researchers focused specifically on nitrogen and phosphorus, two pollutants that directly affect the Chesapeake Bay and are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Floating treatment wetlands involve the use of floating rafts to hold plants above the surface of water with their roots hanging down. The plants act as filters to improve water quality in systems like drinking water reservoirs and stormwater retention ponds. Floating treatment wetlands remove nutrients through the processes of plant uptake, denitrification (breakdown by bacteria), and the trapping, binding, and settling to the bottom of soil and organic matter particles to which the nutrients are attached.

“Laurie has always been very focused on what’s the most practical – what people can gain from that kind of research,” said Sample. “In this case, we had to also consider the nursery owner’s concern: making a profit.”

When looking at solutions for improving water quality, Fox continues to reflect on the perspectives of homeowners and other potential users, and how they’re changing. She recently mentored Biological Systems Engineering graduate student Daniel Robinson, who surveyed people working in municipal stormwater management in the Hampton Roads area. His goal was to learn about stormwater management practices they were or weren’t using, find out why, and seek feedback on how Extension resources could better serve them.

“The project was meant to connect knowledge, practices, and resources,” said Fox.

Fox finds that though the water quality solutions she recommends are relatively easy and inexpensive to adopt, she’ll always be in a battle with apathy – a sense among people that their individual behaviors won’t make a real difference. She said it’s essential to find ways to connect practices to a person’s interests. For instance, if a homeowner isn’t interested in using a rain garden for stormwater management, she might connect by showing how a rain garden could save the homeowner money and increase property value. Whether emotional or practical, the connection helps motivate people to take action.

“We need to overcome that apathetic attitude,” she said. “We can’t afford not to do something, no matter how small. States and municipalities can only do so much. Everyone needs to contribute in order to make the difference.”